The spotlight was already on Odell Beckham Jr. in early 2011 when he made the trip to San Antonio to play in the U.S. Army High School All-American Game. He was already rated as a Top 100 prospect, choosing between offers from Miami and LSU.
But he was selected to the all-star game to play cornerback on the West team, which wasn’t at all what he had in mind.
“He told the coaches, ‘Look, I don’t want to play corner. I want to play receiver,” his father, Odell Sr., recalls. “And they’re looking at him like, ‘Yeah, OK. Everyone’s an All-American here. We don’t have any positions available.’ So he called me up and he said, ‘Man, Pops, I told them I wanted to play receiver, but I’m not getting any reps.’
“So I said ‘Well, if you want to play receiver, and that’s where your heart is, go get it. Call me when you get some reps.’ It didn’t even take a day and he called me saying ‘You know what Pops? I’m starting now.’”
Those coaches learned what most of Beckham’s coaches had learned throughout his lifetime: Once he gets a chance, there isn’t much he can’t do on a football field, especially with the ball in his hands.
That’s why the Giants selected the New Orleans native and LSU product with the 12th overall pick in the NFL draft on Thursday — higher than any LSU receiver has ever been drafted — describing him as “dynamic” and touting him as a “weapon” that can help fix their “broken” offense. Like the coaches in the high school all-star game, the Giants fell in love with everything from Beckham’s speed to his elusiveness to his football I.Q.
None of that came as a surprise to “Pops,” who swears he first saw something special when his son was just 4 years old when he was swinging a Wiffle Ball bat from both sides of the plate and already learning to swim. Odell Sr. was a star running back at LSU himself. And Odell Jr.’s mom, Heather Van Norman, currently the track coach at Nicholls State, was a world-class sprinter and a six-time all-American who was training for the Olympics when she learned she was pregnant.
They knew Odell, Jr. had hit the genetic jackpot. They also knew their job was to give him a little push.
So at age 7, Odell Jr. was spending summers in Dallas with his dad (who had separated from Van Norman) running routes through trees in the yard every day, learning the nuances of a game that his peers wouldn’t learn for years. And they didn’t just play football. They played baseball, basketball and even soccer — a sport that Odell Jr. was so good at that his father said he could’ve played it internationally, except that he didn’t want to move so far away.
“It was like you didn’t even have to motivate him,” Pops says. “He was self-motivated. We’d sit around and he’s like ‘Wait a minute. Pops, let’s go throw the ball, let’s go shoot, let’s go do that.’ I didn’t even have to motivate him to do anything.”
Nelson Stewart saw that too, along with the incredible athletic ability, long before he coached Odell Jr. at Isidore Newman High School — the famous New Orleans alma mater of Eli and Peyton Manning. “Even as a middle-schooler, when he got in the open field and you saw him shifting and moving and spinning and running all over the place,” Stewart says. “I had never seen a kid do that before.”
Before Odell even got to Newman, Stewart was already rewriting his playbook in his head. Odell Jr. started as a quarterback, but he was often used more as an all-purpose “weapon”. He eventually asked to shift to wide receiver (he also played defensive back) but even then, Stewart spent nights devising ways to use him all over the field.
“We always said he was always a threat to go 90 yards,” Stewart says. “The thing we tried to do in high school was be creative with how we got the ball in his hands. We had never run option routes before. We put in the Wildcat. There were many nights where he could’ve had five or six touchdowns. One game he had a rushing, throwing and receiving touchdown. He could almost do anything.”
He was constantly proving that, too. Gus Malzahn, then the Auburn offensive coordinator, stopped by Newman on a recruiting trip and happened to see Odell, then a junior, firing passes 60 yards down the field. “Wow,” Malzahn said. “He can really throw the ball. Then he told Stewart “I’m ready to make him an offer right now.” But Malzahn didn’t know the best part. “That’s with his left hand,” Stewart told him. “And he’s righthanded.”
By the time Beckham was a senior, his numbers were dazzling. He caught 50 passes for 1,010 yards and 19 touchdowns — joining Cooper Manning, Eli and Peyton’s other brother, as the only receivers in school history to top 1,000 yards in a season (and Cooper had the benefit of having Peyton throw him the ball). Beckham also rushed 50 times for 331 yards and six touchdowns, threw for 90 yards and two touchdowns, returned two punts for touchdowns, and had four interceptions, too.
In college he was just as impressive. Last season he caught 59 passes for 1,152 yards and eight touchdowns and averaged over 26 yards per kickoff return. He was second in the nation with 2,315 all-purpose yards — third in SEC history behind Darren McFadden (2,310, Arkansas, 2007) and Randall Cobb (2,396, Kentucky, 2010). He won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.
“He’s one of those explosive guys, like DeSean Jackson style,” says his former college and new Giants teammate, receiver Rueben Randle, echoing a comparison to the dangerous former Eagles receiver made by many scouts. “He can make that big play. He can stretch it. He can take anything to the house.”
Even the Mannings could see their fellow Newman alum was something special. When Beckham attended the Manning camp last summer, he was running routes so precisely and catching so many passes that Stewart says “Eli kept asking for him,” which allowed him to get in a lot of work with his future quarterback.
And even though the quarterbacks are the main attraction at the camp, Pops insists that one college coach confided in him that he “got wrapped up in watching Odell Beckham Jr. because as far as Peyton could throw it, Odell Beckham Jr. ran up under it. So that was quite a statement. Peyton couldn’t even outthrow him.”
It is quite a statement, but not one that Odell Jr. would ever make himself. Though Stewart says “He can do things that just take your breath away” the coach also says it has never gone to his head. “He’s so flashy and electric on the field,” Stewart says, “but when you talk to him he’s a very humble, hard-working kid.” He’s been that way since he was 4 years old and he first told his parents he was “practicing for Sundays.” It’s as if his whole life was a preparation for this moment. And in some ways, that’s exactly what it was.
“Absolutely. That was our dream,” says Pops. “At one point we were in Arizona training for the combine and he said ‘You know Pops, is this what you dreamed or imagined it would be?’ I said ‘This is what I imagined it would be — and more.’”
By Ralph Vacchiano
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